Elm Street Restaurant Social OTR Will Offer Students Onsite Experience to Train for Careers in the Service Industry

This Findlay Market eatery doubles as an internship program

click to enlarge The in-progress exterior of Social OTR - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
The in-progress exterior of Social OTR

You may never see the same kitchen staff twice at Elm Street’s newest restaurant. Social OTR will open in January with a fresh set of culinary interns at the helm, learning as they go. 

A collaboration between Findlay Market and CityLink Center, which provides integrated services to help individuals break free from poverty, Social OTR offers a working internship in a fine dining restaurant for the community’s unemployed and underemployed talent pool. Students get fundamental, hands-on culinary training at no cost to them. And all the money made in the restaurant will be funneled back into the program to provide each student with a set of knives and a uniform; it also keeps the stoves on and the shelves stocked.

Anthony Berin, general manager and founder of Social OTR, collaborated with CityLink Center’s Findlay Culinary Training program to launch Cincinnati’s first and only kitchen-classroom hybrid.

A group of nine students participated in a pilot study for Social OTR a year ago. It was a shortened version of the current program, which now consists of four weeks of training and a 12-week internship in the restaurant.

“We felt that it had a pretty solid success rate,” Berin says of the pilot program. 

All of the initial students have since graduated and five have scored jobs. The goal of the program is to place each student in a food-service job in Cincinnati. “That’s very important to us,” Berin says.

Hands-on training programs like this aren’t new, and when Berin recognized how they were changing lives all over the country, he felt compelled to start something similar in Cincinnati.

“What you see around the food industry today is that everyone is desperate for employees,” he says. So he sought to create a first-class training program that doubled as a great restaurant. From the idea’s conception, he knew that training students in a working environment would be crucial to their success outside of the program.

“They’re going to work in our restaurant in a rotation, what I call ‘terms,’ similar to freshman, sophomore, junior, senior year,” he says.

Berin brought chef Lindsey Cook on board to develop a curriculum as director of culinary training. Cook has a decade’s worth of experience as an instructor at several culinary institutions, including The Art Institute, her alma mater. “Teaching has always been my heart and soul,” Cook says. She’s currently pursuing her doctorate in education.

Prior to becoming an instructor for Social OTR, Cook ran her own catering business and noticed that the food-service labor pool had been thinning out in the past few years. Ohio has the fifth highest number of food-service employees in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “The jobs are there,” Berin says. “The people are not. We just need to bridge that gap.”

Together, Berin and Cook condensed their individual educations into a curriculum that covers an associate degree’s worth of knowledge into 16 weeks. They boiled down the fundamentals of the culinary field into four weeks of lectures. Students learn basic ratios, knife skills, culinary nutrition and financial management at CityLink Center through the Findlay Culinary Training program.

After a month-long whirlwind tour of the basics, students move on to their 12-week live internship under the direction of chef Jen Kempin at Social OTR, where they’ll become familiar with the culture and etiquette of the kitchen as they hone their culinary skills on the menu. Kempin earned her master’s degree in food studies from New York University and was most recently the executive chef at Mount Lookout’s Muse.

She began her culinary career in the 1990s as a lone female in the kitchen. “Traditionally, kitchens are male dominated, quite aggressive,” she says. “I’m just trying to change that entire narrative.”

You still see chefs berating line cooks for their mistakes, no matter how small. Her goal isn’t to take away the assertiveness of being a chef, but to take away her students’ fear of mistakes, she says. “You’re not going to learn from your victories,” she says.

Coming to Social OTR after a long career of being outnumbered by men was a refreshing change of pace: Berin ended up hiring an all-female staff to man the training program. In addition to Kempin and Cook, Berin hired Cat Amaro as hospitality manager. “We didn’t really even realize it until we were all sitting down,” Kempin says, laughing. “And then we were like, ‘OK, this is going to be good.’”

This program isn’t just changing the lives of its students, “(it is) helping their entire family, the generations to come,” Kempin says. In order to tear down those socioeconomic barriers, admission to the program is extremely inclusive. No one gets shooed away for not having a GED or a clean criminal record. Using education as a springboard for students to get hired solves the employment issue from both sides and breaks the cycle of poverty.

In the next year or so, Berin says his team is looking to expand the educational opportunities to front of house skills as well. For now, his crew is busy training Social OTR’s first class of interns, picking out glassware and fine-tuning the menu in preparation for January’s opening.

The restaurant’s name denotes its purpose — building community and connecting strangers over really good food.

“It’s the idea of commensality,” Kempin says. “Sitting down, breaking bread, getting to know one another.”

That’s what the community tables are for: Two long dining tables sit in the center of the room and are a social free for all.

“You might see someone you’ve never met before; you might see someone you knew from two years ago,” Kempin says. “We’re trying to bring this idea of sharing and getting to know each other, because food brings everyone together. That’s kind of the goal.”

Social OTR is located at 1819 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine. More info: socialotr.com.

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